2022-06-28

How and Why the Gospel of Mark Used Scripture — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 1

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by Neil Godfrey

When I offered to post a comprehensive review of Writing With Scripture by Nathanael Vette the publisher sent me a copy and now I hope this first in a series of reviews will begin to do justice to all concerned and interested. I write primarily as a layman for interested lay readers.

Who is Nathanael Vette?

Nathanael Vette [NV] appears on the University of Edinburgh’s site as a Postdoctoral Research Assistant in the School of Divinity.

In the book’s Acknowledgements NV thanks Helen Bond for supervising the research that led to this book. Other names many readers of this blog will recognize and who are singled out for gratitude are Mark Goodacre (one of NV’s doctoral examiners), James McGrath (for feedback) and Chris Keith (editor of the series accepting Writing With Scripture for publication). There are other names, of course, but I have listed for context those I think to be most widely known among lay readers. NV also gives a special appreciation to the Issachar Fund “for their generous sponsorship”.

My postdoctoral fellowship at the School of Divinity is sponsored by the Issachar Fund for researching the themes of gratitude and loyalty in Christianity and Islam. My primary research is on the Gospel of Mark and how compositional practices in Second Temple Judaism can help explain the emergence of the Gospel form. (From NV’s profile)

Overview

Writing With Scripture: Scripturalized Narrative in the Gospel of Mark is divided into four chapters:

The Introduction sets out the two different ways in which Jewish Scriptures are found in the Gospel of Mark: some are explicitly quoted and interpreted or merely alluded to in order “to support an argument or interpret an event”; others we sense are somehow “hidden” insofar as they are “woven seamlessly into the narrative” and we are left wondering why the author wrote that way. Was the author attempting to indicate to readers that Jesus fulfilled the “prophecies” of the Jewish Scriptures? Were events fabricated from those Scriptures or were historical events interpreted through them? Or were the Scriptures borrowed for some other reason? The Introduction will be the focus of this post.

The second chapter sets out a literary context for the Gospel of Mark by examining how Jewish Scriptures are used, both explicitly and implicitly, in Second Temple literature: episodes in Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum (Book of Biblical Antiquities), the Genesis Apocryphon, 1 Maccabees, Judith and the Testament of Abraham. I found these to be some of the book’s most rewarding passages. Many readers have been made aware of scholarly studies comparing the Gospel of Mark with Greco-Roman literature (e.g. Homeric epics, Greek tragedy, Aesop, and others) so it is refreshing to be reminded of the Jewish literary context of the Gospel.

The third chapter zeroes in on several passages in the Gospel of Mark itself: those comparing Jesus with Elijah and then with Elisha, the resonances between the death of John the Baptist and the narrative of Esther, and of course the use of Scriptures throughout the Passion Narrative. How do the uses of the “Old Testament” compare in these passages with OT usages in the literature discussed in the preceding chapter? What can be reasonably concluded about the purpose of those usages as a result of the comparisons? NV argues that many of those Jewish scriptural allusions are found in the Gospel because they happened to be raw material the author found useful for fleshing out narrative scenes. In other words, we are in danger of reading too much into the Gospel if we seek to find a theological meaning behind many of the Scriptural allusions.

Finally, NV brings together the different ways in which we find Scripture used in the Gospel of Mark and what these can tell us about the influences and purposes of the narrative. The question that naturally arises is how much of what we read in the Gospel has been imaginatively invented by an author from OT passages and how much can qualify as historical reality? And how can we tell the difference? These questions are posed throughout the book in preparation for a final discussion and assessment at its end.

Introduction

NV justifies his comparison of the Gospel of Mark with Jewish apocrypha and pseudepigrapha on the grounds pointed out by Devorah Dimant (in Use and Interpretation of Mikra): that these writings have in common the imitation of the styles and forms of the (OT) biblical literature and can be read as if they are attempting to imitate that biblical world. Scripture is not primarily addressed directly in order to be explicitly interpreted in these writings but acts as an underlay that helps shape narrative episodes. NV also borrows from Dimant the terms to describe these two types of Scripture reference: expositional and compositional. Most scholarship has attended to the expositional use of Scriptures in the Gospel of Mark, seeking to explain how the Gospel can be interpreted through its Scriptural references; but NV seeks to redress that balance by examining the compositional function of biblical texts in the Gospel. At this point NV brings us up to date with a survey of the two competing scholarly views, one beginning with C. H. Dodd and the other with Alfred Suhl.

Before I address that discussion, I must answer a question that I know is of particular interest to readers: When was Mark written? NV works with the conventional date of late first century:

The author clearly knows of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (Mk 13:2), which establishes the terminus post quem as 70 CE. That the Gospel of Mark served as the primary source for the Gospel of Matthew, which was written in the same generation following the Temple’s destruction, sets the terminus ante quem at c. 85 CE. (NV, p. 5)

Another feature that some readers will find novel to some extent is that NV uses gender-neutral pronouns to reference the author of the Gospel of Mark throughout. After all, he rightly explains, we don’t know the gender of the author. But one does sometimes need to back up a moment when encountering “their” and “them” in order to remind oneself that these pronouns are referring to the author. (Here I will use Mark to refer to the author and Mark – italics – to refer to the Gospel.)

And one more note before launching into a discussion of NV’s argument: Especially in this opening chapter NV uses too much untranslated German quotation for my liking. One might be able to infer some general idea of the point being expressed from the context but quite often one wants to know exactly what is being said in that language unfamiliar to most would-be English-language readers. Surely NV hopes for a readership to stretch beyond those New Testament scholars who also read German. In such a relatively short book, I don’t see why he wouldn’t have included English translations.

Strauss to Farrer

We are familiar with the view that in the Gospels there are stories that appear to have been invented in order to weave an Old Testament passage into the life of Jesus. The point, it is assumed, is to demonstrate that Jesus was the fulfilment of the Jewish Scriptures. NV refers to John Dominic Crossan’s study of the Passion Narrative in the Gospels in which he described them as “prophecy historicized” rather than “history remembered”. NV traces that sceptical approach from David Friedrich Strauss through Karl Weidel to Martin Dibelius, as well as in J. Rendel Harris and Austin Farrer. The whole reason for the use of Scripture, whether directly quoted or slipped in as descriptive background to the narrative was to prove that Jesus was the culmination of God’s plan in the Jewish writings. Very little attempt was made to place the narrative of Mark in the context of other Jewish narratives.

NV points out that Strauss considered it akin to “fanaticism” on the part of early Christian authors to see Christ everywhere they looked in the Jewish “canonical” writings and Farrer has been accused of bordering on “typologicalmania” as a result of his ability to so regularly observe OT templates in Mark. Perhaps the criticisms are justified, but I recall from my own days of “fanaticism” how “light suddenly dawned” on me when I read afresh the story of Jacob removing the stone from the well for Rachel — I was reading “a prophecy” of the angel moving the stone from the tomb to allow the resurrected Christ to give life to the church! When reading the OT, committed Christians will doubtless find everything they are looking for, and more. My sympathies are with Farrer on that score. But was Mark such a “fanatic”? Or was he simply immersed so deeply in a culture of Jewish texts that he utilized their materials at a base level of storytelling far more often than he directly cited a Scripture for exposition as part of his narrative?

“The Dodd camp”

NV addresses in some depth the influence of C. H. Dodd on Gospel research. According to Dodd, the earliest “Christians” shared oral accounts about Jesus but in order to make sense of what looked like failure on the part of Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion they were driven to interpret those “memories” in the light of Scripture. Dodd justified this model of how the stories evolved before becoming part of a written Gospel by pointing to passages in the Acts of the Apostles. Here I go beyond what NV himself presented and quote an extended passage from Dodd in hopes that we get the picture with some clarity:

In describing the contents of the kerygma, I have distinguished the events which it announces, on the one hand, and on the other hand the significance which it attaches to them. We shall normally seek the starting point for theology in these parts of the kerygma which suggest significance. As I have remarked, this significance is indicated mainly by reference to the prophecies of the Old Testament. The programmatic discourse attributed to Peter on the Day of Pentecost in Acts ii begins (after the rhetorical exordium) with the pronouncement, “This is that which was spoken by the prophet,” (ii. 16) and it is punctuated by citations from the Old Testament all through. Similarly, in the discourse of Peter and John before the Sanhedrin in chapter iii, we are told, “the things which God foreshowed by the mouth of all the prophets, . . . he thus fulfilled ” (iii. 18). In the type of kerygma attributed to Paul in Acts xiii we read “We bring you good tidings of the promise made to the fathers, how that God fulfilled the same to our children” (xiii. 32-33). The “good tidings” consist primarily in the news of what has happened; to understand how they are “good tidings,” they must be related to what has gone before. How vital this reference to Scripture is, appears from another clause in Peter’s Pentecostal discourse. In his brief report of the facts, he comes to the point that Jesus was handed over by the Jews to the Romans, who put Him to death. The inclusion of so tragic a report in a proclamation which purports to be “good tidings” needs some justification. Peter offers the key to such justification by adding that all this took place “by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God” (Acts ii. 23). Such a bald and provocative statement as that cannot have been intended to stand by itself. It was incumbent upon the preacher, having said so much, to establish what was the determinate counsel of God. The only way in which this could be discovered (for any­ one who accepted the fundamental postulates of biblical religion) was by consulting the record of God’s dealings with His people in Scripture; for no devout and believing Jew would suppose that the human mind could by specu­lative reasoning discover the counsel of the Most High. Thus the Church was committed, by the very terms of its kerygma, to a formidable task of biblical research, primarily for the purpose of clarifying its own understanding of the momentous events out of which it had emerged, and also for the purpose of making its Gospel intelligible to the outside public. (Dodd, According to the Scriptures, 13f – my bolding)

In other words, though NV does not quite say it (speaking from recollection), the idea that oral reports about Jesus were fused with Scripture to give them the desired theological meaning is in effect merely a paraphrase of the Acts narrative. (Worse still, in my view, is that the argument is a forced attempt to “prove” the historical foundation of the faith’s narrative. Surely the logic of the narrative in which Jesus is victoriously resurrected overrides any need for scouring the canon to justify the crucifixion.) NV does refer to Dodd’s confessional bias, a bias that is clear from the concluding paragraph of the same work, According to the Scriptures:

The work that the Hellenistic theologians did was an example to theologians of every period. They sought an expression for the fundamental truths of the Gospel in terms which would give them relevance to the large questions which in that age were being asked about God, man and the universe. We in turn have the task of giving them relevance to the large questions which are being asked by men of our time. But if theology seeks an accommodation with temporary fashions of thought by cutting loose from its firm foundations in kerygma and testimonies, as it has sometimes done, it declines into insignificance, and has in fact nothing to say to the world which the world may not learn elsewhere. The challenge of a new period with its peculiar problems should force us back to the pit from whence we were digged and the rock from whence we were hewn. (Dodd, 138)

From Dodd it is downhill (speaking of confessional-based scholarship) with Barnabas Lindars who attributed the OT Scripture references in the Gospels to “the ‘astonishingly accurate’ similarities between the Scriptures and the ‘facts’ of Jesus’ life”, and Douglas Moo who insisted that the evangelists were remarkably honest in their “correct” interpretation of the OT Scriptures that they identified as coinciding with the life of Jesus.

At the same time, the original literary context of a citation or allusion is deemed to be of greatest concern for the Gospel writers: ‘[it] can unhesitatingly be asserted that Jesus and the evangelists have shown a remarkable faithfulness to the original context in their appropriation of OT verses to interpret the passion’. And like Lindars, Moo is – one could say conveniently – able to find shades of reformed dogmatics in Jesus’ interpretation of his own death using Isaiah 53, implying the ‘efficacy [of his] vicarious, redemptive suffering’, which was ‘voluntary, sacrificial, [and] substitutionary’. (NV, 11)

A more recent name some readers may know is Richard Hays (Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels). Hays is similarly faulted for showing more theological bias than sound method: Hays calls on his readers to search the Scriptures for themselves to find the “truth” about the divinity of Jesus.

In the final analysis, Hays’ work on Mark’s use of the Jewish Scriptures – though it has no shortage of rich and insightful exegesis – suffers from a malady common to other works in the burgeoning ‘Old Testament in the New’ field: it is biblical theology dressed up in the garb of historical criticism. Hays appears to believe the early Christians were right to find Jesus in ‘Israel’s Scripture’ because he was, in some sense, already there – a confessional claim which puts Hays in the company of Dodd, Lindars and Moo. (NV, 20f)

NV himself avoids the scarcely hidden theological bias of “the Dodd camp” but I have set out the above quotations for the benefit of future reference because my own view is that the results of that bias run so deep in New Testament studies that sound historical methods are the ultimate losers. Even when scholars share none of the theological biases of some of their peers they (not all but many) nonetheless perpetuate conclusions and methods that are born from those biases.

Two scholars probably familiar to readers here are singled out as continuing in the “thematic approach” of Dodd: Joel Marcus and Rikki Watts. What their work has in common with that of Dodd’s is a thematic approach: both find that Mark was composed as a whole to echo themes from Isaiah, in particular the “second exodus”. NV is not so convinced that they have succeeded in establishing that the literary structure of Mark is consistent with Isaiah or that the theme of the opening verses of the Gospel (the composite quotation of Isaiah-Malachi-Exodus) sets up the literary framework for the rest of the Gospel. But Marcus does at least engage in a comparison with other Second Temple literature — as NV himself does.

“The Suhl camp”

Contrary to Dodd’s interpretation of Mark’s use of Scriptures, Alfred Suhl in 1965 concluded that in Mark Scriptures were not used as part of an attempt to demonstrate that the life of Jesus was a fulfilment of OT prophecies. Later evangelists, Matthew and Luke, wrote that way, but not Mark. The Gospel of Mark is written in “the colours” of the OT. Mark was using OT references and style to place Jesus in the same biblical world as the heroes of old and through whom God worked out his saving plan. Accordingly, Mark’s use of scriptures is described for the most part as “atomistic”, taking a piece from here and another from there in order to build up a “biblical” tone and theme for the story of Jesus. The original context of those OT passages was of little interest to the author.

Here NV finds the precursor to his own study of how the Gospel of Mark came to be composed: it is the compositional use of Scriptures rather than the expositional use (recall Devorah Dimant’s classifications mentioned above). Willem Vorster, a South African scholar, continued to explore Suhl’s work:

In two brief articles, Vorster makes the case that Mark tells their Gospel in the ‘language of the Old Testament’, not as an external source, but as part of the narrative itself. Again, this process was atomistic: citations and allusions were drawn without ‘direct reference to their Old Testament context(s)’. In this, Mark was simply ‘a child of his time’. Building on Suhl’s suggestion, Vorster begins to sketch out a compositional approach to the question: One of the inferences one should make from the use of the Old Testament in the Gospel of Mark is that the author created a new story with the aid of intertextual codes that helped him to communicate his own point of view’. The author creatively weaved together the Jewish Scriptures and inherited traditions, and ‘by doing this Mark created a new text from other texts, traces of which can be seen in his text’. Sadly, Vorster passed away before he was able to explore this further. What he was nevertheless able to see was the seeds of a compositional approach to Mark’s use of the Jewish Scriptures in the pioneering work of Suhl. (NV, 13f)

The question that comes to mind, of course, is whether this compositional use of Scripture meant that the author at least sometimes created imaginative events and sayings for Jesus.

Imitatio and the compositional use of Jewish Scriptures

Did the Gospels originate as segments for liturgical readings? Some of us will be aware of Michael Goulder’s view on this proposal through some of Mark Goodacre’s work. But NV finds that thesis unprovable (meaning unfalsifiable). As for the related view that the Gospel of Mark is written as midrash on selected Jewish Scriptures (Michael Goulder, John Bowman, John Drury, Dale and Patricia Miller . . .) NV raises the problem of definition (compare some of my posts addressing that question here) and sides with those who believe that what is often being labelled as “midrash” is more like the Greco-Roman literary practice of “mimesis”, that is, literary imitation, or simply “a creative use of Scriptural material”. Another name known to many readers here is Adam Winn who explored the relationship between Mark and the Elijah-Elisha narrative in 1-2 Kings. (I posted some years back an overview of the Elijah-Elisha posts by Winn’s supervisor, Thomas Brodie.)

I think NV is closer to the mark than the “midrashists” by comparing Mark’s work with Greco-Roman imitation or mimesis. As Dennis MacDonald wrote of the author of Mark

Like the proverbial bee of ancient rhetoric, Mark harvested nectar from several blossoms—some Jewish and some Greek—and transformed them into Gospel honey. (MacDonald, 96)

Mark’s allusions to Elijah and Elisha may well be interpreted in the same way as his possible “mimesis” of Odysseus — Jesus is written to “emulate” and surpass these heroes. NV goes so far as to say,

Winn succeeds in his task, however, as he puts it, of ‘demonstrating the existence of a significant literary relationship between Mark’s gospel and the Elijah-Elisha narrative’. But unlike previous studies, Winn does not go so far as to posit that Mark’s use of 1-2 Kings is the ‘interpretive key’ for understanding the Gospel. He cautions ‘one must be careful in correlating a narrative’s source material with a narrative’s meaning or significance’. The author of a work may not intend the reader to pick up on its use of source material or for that material to play a role in the interpretation of the new work. (NV, 26 – my bolding)

That conclusion contradicts Dennis MacDonald’s insistence that the imitating author generally included “flags” in the narrative to alert readers that the author was “cleverly” imitating and surpassing another popular work in some way. If the reader is called upon to compare the new composition with a well-known source then some level of “exposition” is also involved, if only for the reader to see how the new character is more powerful, wiser, more long-suffering, and so forth, than the old. How can one read the story of the miraculous feedings of the five thousand then of the four thousand and not bring to mind Elisha’s feeding a mere 100? Or how can a comparison with the story of Jonah not come to mind when one reads of Jesus in the boat being awoken from sleep in the midst of a life-threatening storm and bringing about an awe-inspiring calm? NV discusses the Elisha comparison in chapter three and expresses a need for further discussion of the Jonah allusions. But if we follow the studies on the Greco-Roman literary practice of imitation we learn that explicit comparison, that is, some form of exposition (especially among more learned audiences) was a significant reason for the imitation. It was practiced for more than mere story invention or adaptation.

Still, there are clearly other scenes in the Gospel that involve less obvious comparisons and one is left wondering “what was the point” of the similarity with an OT narrative. Insofar as the same kinds of echoes between Scripture and a new narrative are found in other Second Temple literature, NV’s study expands our understanding of how Mark was composing his Gospel.

Scripturalization

NV takes the term “scripturalization” from Mark Goodacre who borrowed the term from Judith Newman and explained it thus:

Judith Newman uses this term in relation to Jewish prayers in the Second Temple Period, which increasingly used scriptural models, precedents and language. The thesis of Newman’s book is that increasing devotion to developing Jewish Scriptures, in a liturgical context in which such Scriptures were getting used more and more, led inexorably to the intermingling of those Scriptures with Jewish prayers. It is a view that could shed light on the Passion Narratives in the Gospels. (Goodacre, 41f)

Through the concept of “scripturalization” NV will follow Goodacre in avoiding what both view as the polarization set up by Crossan when he spoke of “history remembered” versus “prophecy historicized”. I have to confess to having some ambivalence about Goodacre’s “midway” solution. It sounds to me very close to the fundamental approach of C.H. Dodd whose view I described above as “the idea that oral reports about Jesus were fused with Scripture to give them the desired theological meaning”. In Goodacre’s words,

But ‘history remembered’ and ‘prophecy historicized’ are not the only options. A more nuanced model is available. It might be explained like this. The multiple echoes of biblical themes and the varied allusions to scriptural precedent are plausibly explained on the hypothesis that from the beginning there was an intimate interaction between historical event and scriptural reflection, so that the tradition developed in the light of Old Testament languages and models. Events generated scriptural reflection, which in turn influenced the way the events were remembered and retold. The process of casting the narrative in this language might be described, to utilize an illuminating term from Hebrew Bible scholarship, as scripturalization. (Goodacre, 42 — my highlighting)

Surely the mere act of reflecting on Scriptures in the context of historical events is nothing other than a search for a scriptural meaning for those events: an expositional use of Scripture! As the events were retold in the light of Scripture, then yes, one can imagine further elaborations to the original story entering the narrative and even sometimes outright fabrication of details. If the scriptural reflection is inspired by a historical person or event then Scripture’s initial entry into the narrative must be for the purpose of exposition at some level, I would think. Or perhaps not necessarily so if the oral tradents are so deeply immersed in Scripture that they can scarcely think of events apart from the “sacred” motifs and phrases that they dwell on daily. In that case, however, would not a literate group who had the opportunity to familiarize themselves so deeply be the ones primarily responsible for the retold and elaborated reports, and if so, would we expect to wait a full generation after those events before they were written down as narrative history or biography?

I criticized above the Dodd approach as essentially a reliance upon a naive paraphrase of the Acts of the Apostles. Goodacre attempts, in part, to justify how “scripturalization” worked by reference to Paul’s message to the Corinthians about the “tradition” he received on the institution of the eucharist:

I Cor. 11:23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread,24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Goodacre comments:

Which came first? Historical event or biblical precedent? Crossan’s answer is clear: ‘In the beginning was passion prophecy, not passion narrative’. But what if Paul gives us the best clue by placing tradition alongside the scriptures, seeing one interacting with the other, uniting event with precedent? If history and scripture were from the first in conversation with one another, perhaps the best answer to the question is to say, with a celebration of its ambiguity and an investment in its dual meaning, In the beginning was the Word. (p. 51 – my bolding)

But “tradition” is not what we see in Paul’s words. Paul speaks of what he received from the Lord, not from others. (Many attempt to find a way to argue that Paul meant that he received the “tradition” from other persons but that’s not what we read in his letter to the Corinthians.) Another item missing from Paul’s discussion is “Scripture”. So the passage does not combine tradition and Scripture and accordingly fails as a support for Goodacre’s explanation of how scripturalization worked as far as I can see.

So what other justifications does Goodacre find for his use of the term “scripturalization” — as an interaction between historical tradition and Scripture?

I would like to suggest two further ways in which an interactive model is more plausible than the ‘prophecy historicized’ model.

    • First, elements that have no scriptural precedent are juxtaposed with those that have;
    • and second, the narrative is framed by the names of apparent witnesses about whom we know little else (Mark 15.21 and 15.40-41).

(Goodacre, p. 45 – my formatting)

Goodacre singles out the following passage as an illustration of the first point: italics are the scriptural allusions and the rest is without scriptural precedent and I have made them more distinctive with bolded highlighting;

21. A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. 22. They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means The Place of the Skull). 23. Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh [Ps. 69.22] but he did not take it. 24. And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get [Ps. 22.19] 25. It was the third hour when they crucified him. 26. The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS. 27. They crucified two robbers with him, one on his right and one on his left. [Isa. 53.12] 28. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads [Pss. 22.8; 109.25] and saying, ‘So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30. come down from the cross and save yourself! [Ps. 22.9].

We can see that Simon the Cyrenian, father of Alexander and Rufus, is not taken from Scripture. Likewise Golgotha. And the titulus. Now Mark Goodacre by no means insists that these elements are therefore historical. But he does clearly lead readers to think that historicity is a more plausible assumption than outright fabrication. The point of the argument is that scripturalization does not necessarily mean a story has been entirely fabricated and that the story originated from the early interplay between historical memory and scriptural language.

It is at this point that I return to my earlier reference to a less than adequate historical research nous pervading so many works on Gospel and Christian origins. The historicity of any event or person, or even the probability of historicity, can never be determined by the self-witness of a narrative alone. In every case, some forms of independent, meaning external, controls are necessary otherwise the researcher lapses into a conclusion based on circular reasoning. See, for example, the post discussing the methods of historical research according to one of the more prominent classicists and historians of the ancient world, Moses I. Finley: An Ancient Historian on Historical Jesus Studies and on Ancient Sources Generally.  (Even Albert Schweitzer acknowledged the same principle although he failed to follow through on his own advice. See also the discussions of Philip R. Davies and Mario Liverani on the logical fallacy of attempting to make judgements about historicity solely on the basis of internal analysis of a document.)

The world is rarely black and white, either-or, and nor are historical research and literary analysis. Some readers are familiar with T. E. Schmidt’s analysis of Jesus’ walk (or being borne) to his crucifixion on Golgotha and find it to be an ironic parody of a Roman triumphal march. My discussion of Schmidt’s article is Recognizing the Triumphant Conqueror in Mark’s crucifixion scene. There one learns of the strong reasons for suspecting Golgotha to be a mocking allusion to the Capitol Hill destination of the Triumphator in Rome. There is potentially very little room for historicity behind this and other details that have no scriptural allusions.

The second reason offered for preferring historicity behind the core of the Passion Narrative is the appearance of names for which little reason can be imagined other than that they were included as verifying eye-witnesses.

It is worth noticing that the story of the crucifixion, from Jesus’ being led out to be crucified (15.20b) to the moments immediately after his death (15.40-41), is framed by references to named witnesses. First, Simon of Cyrene, the man who carried Jesus’ cross, is introduced. In itself, this reference to an otherwise unknown figure might be telling, but the appended detail, only in Mark, that he was ‘the father of Alexander and Rufus’ (15.21) is even more revealing. It is rare in the New Testament, and just as rare in antiquity generally, for characters to be identified by means of their children. The reverse is the norm. James and John are sons of Zebedee (1.19 and 3.17); Levi (2.14) and James (3.18) are sons of Alphaeus; and Bartimaeus is son of Timaeus (10.46). The mention of a key character’s sons is striking. The implied reader of Mark’s story finds the mention of Alexander and Rufus telling. Perhaps they were known to the readers of Mark’s Gospel. Perhaps certain elements in the story originated in their stories.33

This intriguing possibility is extended by the appearance of the women at the other end of the crucifixion narrative. These women are said to have been watching (θεωρουσαι) the events and once again, the specificity in naming them is revealing. . . . (Goodacre, p. 47)

What the above analysis misses is that the identifications of persons are symmetrically reversed at the end of the Gospel from the way they were introduced at the beginning. In the first part of the Gospel persons are identified by their parents; in the latter by their children. We also know Mark is a lover of puns (Bartimaeus, Jairus, . . .) and ambiguities. In this context Simon is not introduced as a witness but rather as a substitute for another Simon who had once been instructed on the necessity of carrying his cross. Furthermore, a 2013 work by the German scholar Andreas Bedenbender, Frohe Botschaft am Abgrund: Das Markusevangelium und der Jüdische Krieg [= Good News on the Abyss: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish War], posits plausible alternatives to historicity for the appearance of the names Simon, Alexander and Rufus all together. (My post addressing details is yet to come.) And this is just scratching the surface of reasons to interpret Simon and his sons as other than “historical” let alone “historical witnesses”.

Similar objections apply to the women watching “from afar”. Surely, the fact that they were noted as standing “from afar” must indicate that they could not have been introduced as persons in a position to guarantee it was Jesus whom they saw crucified. And other names also appear suddenly and are dropped throughout Mark. That style of Mark does not suggest they were eyewitnesses, although Richard Bauckham may beg to differ.

In other words, scripturalization is not necessarily better explained as an interaction between historical traditions and scriptural reflections, or at least there is little evidence upon which to firmly set that thesis. Perhaps the simplest explanation is, to repeat and adapt the quotation from Dennis MacDonald,

Like the proverbial bee of ancient rhetoric, Mark harvested nectar from several blossoms—some Jewish and some Greek [and some Roman and some from recent war, though it’s hard to think of war as a “blossom”] —and transformed them into gospel honey.

But we are digressing with too much space directly engaging with Goodacre’s explanation and with some criticisms that might best be recalled at the end of this review.

Next, I will look at the second section of Nathanael Vette’s work that I found to be a most interesting exploration of how Jewish scriptures have been used to create and/or shape narratives. After that study, I think we will have a clearer idea of the literary context from which the Gospel of Mark emerged and a better understanding of NV’s thesis.


Dodd, C.H. According to the Scriptures: The Sub-Structure of New Testament Theology. London: Nisbet, 1952. https://archive.org/details/accordingtoscrip0000dodd

Goodacre, Mark. “Prophecy Historicized or Tradition Scripturalized? Reflections on The Origins of The Passion Narrative.” In The New Testament and The Church : Essays in Honour of John Muddiman, edited by John Barton and Peter Groves, 37–51. London ; New York: T & T Clark, 2015.  https://www.academia.edu/35287782/Prophecy_Historicized_or_Tradition_Scripturalized_Reflections_on_the_Origin_of_the_Passion_Narratives.

MacDonald, Dennis Ronald. The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

Suhl, Alfred. Die Funktion der alttestamentlichen Zitate und Anspielungen im Markusevangelium. Gütersloh: Mohn, 1965. http://archive.org/details/diefunktionderal0000suhl.

Vette, Nathanael. Writing With Scripture: Scripturalized Narrative in the Gospel of Mark. London ; New York: T&T Clark, 2022.

Vorster, W S. “The Function of the Use of the Old Testament in Mark.” Neotestamentica 14 (1980): 62–72. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43047807

Vorster, W.S. “The Production of the Gospel of Mark: An Essay on Intertextuality.” HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies 49, no. 3 (January 13, 1993): 385–96. https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v49i3.2499.


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Neil Godfrey

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22 thoughts on “How and Why the Gospel of Mark Used Scripture — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 1”

  1. Per “Intertextual production of the Gospel of Mark”. Wikipedia. 29 June 2022.

    I added the following CC by Neil:

    [§.Comparison with Jewish apocrypha and pseudepigrapha] A justification for the comparison of the Gospel of Mark with Jewish apocrypha and pseudepigrapha is given by Nathanael Vette, following Devorah Dimant (in Use and Interpretation of Mikra): that these writings have in common the imitation of the styles and forms of the Old Testament(OT) biblical literature and can be read as if they are attempting to imitate that biblical world. Scripture is not primarily addressed directly in order to be explicitly interpreted in these writings but acts as an underlay that helps shape narrative episodes. Vette also borrows from Dimant the terms to describe these two types of Scripture reference: expositional and compositional. Most scholarship has attended to the expositional use of Scriptures[§.Comparison with Jewish apocrypha and pseudepigrapha] A justification for the comparison of the Gospel of Mark with Jewish apocrypha and pseudepigrapha is given by Nathanael Vette, following Devorah Dimant (in Use and Interpretation of Mikra): that these writings have in common the imitation of the styles and forms of the Old Testament(OT) biblical literature and can be read as if they are attempting to imitate that biblical world. Scripture is not primarily addressed directly in order to be explicitly interpreted in these writings but acts as an underlay that helps shape narrative episodes. Vette also borrows from Dimant the terms to describe these two types of Scripture reference: expositional and compositional. Most scholarship has attended to the expositional use of Scriptures in the Gospel of Mark, seeking to explain how the Gospel can be interpreted through its Scriptural references; but Vette seeks to redress that balance by examining the compositional function of biblical texts in the Gospel. in the Gospel of Mark, seeking to explain how the Gospel can be interpreted through its Scriptural references; but Vette seeks to redress that balance by examining the compositional function of biblical texts in the Gospel.

    Please copy-edit this content to improve its quality.

    1. I have made a few minor contributions to Wikipedia from time to time but once when I attempted to correct what I considered “misinformation” about a certain living person my remarks were almost immediately deleted. That’s when I came up against the self-appointed Wikipedia police I had heard about. Some people jealously guard certain topics and keep their contents “politically correct” according to their own biases. I am usually careful to check the overall worth of a Wikipedia article before linking to it on Vridar.

      Again, not too many years back, someone combed through Wikipedia searching for all references to “vridar” (added by others, not by me) and deleting them in their entirety. The reason stated in the “edit/workpage” was that blogs are not appropriate sources for any information on Wikipedia. A quick search will soon show that that so-called “rule” is applied very selectively, however.

      As for ISBNs — I am open to learning more and changing my mind, but from what I currently understand there would be more work than I can justify by adding relevant ISBNs there. Many books have several ISBNs — one for hardcover, one for paperback, one for each type of electronic format, and then new ones for each revision. By adding one ISBN I suspect the result would be a misleading impression that all links to that title would be found when in fact only those related to a particular format and revision would be found.

      I generally try to link to Worldcat.org or archive.org (related to the Open Library) so anyone interested can follow through and find public access to the book itself: via seeing it in a library nearby or being able to request an interlibrary loan or reading it online. As a rule I try to avoid linking to sites that are promoting the title for their own company profit — not only publishers but also Amazon and even Google. (Google tries to sell you older titles that you can download from archive.org for free!) I also use librarything to organize my own collection and sometimes link to that if other options are not what I would like. There are other sites, too, but those are the main ones I use.

  2. Glad you are reviewing this book, Neil. It has been on my radar for quite a while though it is prohibitively expensive. Vette’s paper on Kenaz was a convincing parallel to the “paper Jesus” book you reviewed last year. (There is no public pdf available but you can request it directly from him through his Researchgate page). Really shifted my priors on the historicity of various NT figures. I’m sure it comes up in the book since he discusses Ps-Philo LAB.

    1. And yes, Nanine Charbonne’s work is certainly an appropriate and worthwhile companion reading piece alongside Vette’s Writing with Scripture. Also to come up in the next post in this review series will be the way puns can be used to create entirely new scenarios, and if we recall the proposition found in many scholarly works (not only by Charbonnel but also by mainstream NT scholars) that the Jesus of the gospels is in some sense depicted as a personification of Israel, . . . the hypothetical plausibilities multiply.

    2. It has been on my radar for quite a while though it is prohibitively expensive.

      Vette, Nathanael (2022). “Writing with Scripture: Scripturalized Narrative in the Gospel of Mark”. doi:10.5040/9780567704665. “The full text of this book is only available to members of institutions that have purchased access [to Bloomsbury Collections].”

  3. OP: “NV uses too much untranslated German quotation for my liking. One might be able to infer some general idea of the point being expressed from the context but quite often one wants to know exactly what is being said in that language unfamiliar to most would-be English-language readers. Surely NV hopes for a readership to stretch beyond those New Testament scholars who also read German. In such a relatively short book, I don’t see why he wouldn’t have included English translations.”

    If anyone is in contact with Vette, please tell him to remedy the situation by posting the quotes on https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Wikiquote:Wikiquote

    e.g.
    “Albert Schweitzer – Wikiquote”. de.wikiquote.org (in German).
    AND
    In English @ https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Albert_Schweitzer
    “The ideal “Life of Jesus” [biography] at the close of the nineteenth century is the “Life” which Heinrich Julius Holtzmann did not write — but which can be pieced together from his commentary on the synoptic gospels and his new testament theology. It is ideal because, for one thing, it is unwritten, and arises only in the idea of the reader by the aid of his own imagination, and, for another, because it is traced only in the most general outline. (p. 296)”

  4. OP: “Alfred Suhl in 1956 concluded that in Mark Scriptures were not used as part of an attempt to demonstrate that the life of Jesus was a fulfilment of OT prophecies. Later evangelists, Matthew and Luke, wrote that way, but not Mark.”

    Whereas Matthew and Luke use the Old Testament within a promise-fulfilment scheme, Vorster argues that Mark’s use of the Old Testament is totally different, see Vorster, Willem S. (1999) [1981]. “The function of the use of the Old Testament in Mark”. In Botha, J. Eugene (ed.). Speaking of Jesus: Essays on Biblical Language, Gospel Narrative, and the Historical Jesus. BRILL. p. 153. ISBN 90-04-10779-7.

  5. I have for a while been sceptical about the authority of Helen Bond and the Edinburgh faculty which she heads up. You have already highlighted the unnecessary use of “them” and “their” for the author of Mark’s gospel. Surely everyone reading a PhD thesis would know that Mark is simply a shorthand for a person or persons unknown? There is no need to labour the point about the unknown gender. The Edinburgh output of gender conscious materials finds a ready market in the increasingly feminised Anglican church leadership. In addition, she seems to be promoting the examination of historicity for subjects (such as the virgin Mary) which many have long since been regarded as lost causes. I will read with interest as you navigate a path through this document, despite its provenance, no doubt as always using it as a springboard for a fascinating investigation of related materials.

  6. There are some bizarre names to be explained:

    OP: “[S]cripturalization is not necessarily better explained as an interaction between historical traditions and scriptural reflections, or at least there is little evidence upon which to firmly set that thesis. Perhaps the simplest explanation is, to repeat and adapt the quotation from Dennis MacDonald,

    Like the proverbial bee of ancient rhetoric, Mark harvested nectar from several blossoms—some Jewish and some Greek [and some Roman and some from recent war, though it’s hard to think of war as a “blossom”] —and transformed them into gospel honey.

    But we are digressing with too much space directly engaging with Goodacre’s explanation and with some criticisms that might best be recalled at the end of this review.”

    Per The Gospels and Homer: Imitations of Greek Epic in Mark and Luke-Acts. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. ISBN 978-1-4422-3053-8., MacDonald 2014, p. 11. “The Markan Evangelist not only translates the joint nickname [Boanerges] but also makes a point that it was Jesus who created it . . . Its significance for Mark lies in his translation “Sons of Thunder.” Earlier the Evangelist introduced James and John as fishermen who abandoned their father’s boat. If one were to look for an analogy to them in classical Greek literature, one set of brothers should instantly come to mind: Castor and Polydeuces, the twin sons . . . known as the Dioscuri, “Sons-of-Zeus.” Zeus, of course, was the god of thunder and lightning, and the Dioscuri were sailors; they were among the Argonauts who accompanied Jason to retrieve the golden fleece. [In every instance but one they speak in unison, e.g. the request to sit at the glorified Jesus’ right and left hand].”

    Per Danila Oder (23 July 2021). “What is the meaning of “Boanerges”?”. The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text. “A para-Aramaic meaning of Boanerges is plausible, because Mark creates at least one other para-Aramaic name: Arimathea.

    As Meier points out, the name doesn’t make sense within Mark’s story. I add that it also doesn’t make sense within a performed play. James and John are not pretentious or angry or thunderous; they barely speak dialogue, and even when they dispute who is the greatest (9:34) it is among themselves, i.e., silently; the audience learn what they have been ‘disputing’ about from Jesus’s speech (9:35) “If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all.”

    I suspect that “Boanerges” was a topical reference in Mark’s world that he expected his readers to recognize. In support of topicality, I note that Matthew and Luke both omit it.”

  7. OP: “When reading the OT, committed Christians will doubtless find everything they are looking for, and more…. But was Mark such a “fanatic”? Or was he simply immersed so deeply in a culture of Jewish texts that he utilized their materials at a base level of storytelling far more often than he directly cited a Scripture for exposition as part of his narrative?”

    Carrier (25 February 2021). “The Original Scriptural Concept of ‘The Lord’ Jesus”. Richard Carrier Blogs.

    [P]erhaps least noticed and understood by most people today: Christians in Paul’s day—Paul included—thought Jesus had spoken to the ancient prophets, and therefore prophecies in the Jewish scriptures, even the Psalms, were literally the words of Jesus—spoken by Jesus, using the prophets who recorded them, “like musical instruments” as Athenagoras would say. They could therefore be quoted as the words of Jesus. And with total confidence that they really were; no further eyewitness testimony to Jesus required. This was more than the belief, still commonly voiced today, that the scriptures told us authoritative things about Jesus.
    […]
    They didn’t just learn things about Jesus from hidden messages they found in the scriptures; they learned things from Jesus in those hidden messages. It’s also important to realize “the scriptures” meant to them not just what we now call the Old Testament but also additional books besides, since “the Old Testament” as a thing did not exist when Christianity arose. So when Paul or any other early Christian author says “the scriptures” they meant a larger body of texts than “the Old Testament,” including such works as Enoch and the Wisdom and Psalms of Solomon and possibly even the Assumption and Revelation of Moses. They also meant versions of even our Old Testament scriptures that said different things than ours now do. (On both points see evidence and cited scholarship in Element 9 of OHJ. These points are another of those little “facts” often not known to the public, though in this case at least usually known to scholars.)

  8. OP: “NV also borrows from Dimant the terms to describe these two types of Scripture reference: expositional and compositional. Most scholarship has attended to the expositional use of Scriptures in the Gospel of Mark, seeking to explain how the Gospel can be interpreted through its Scriptural references; but NV seeks to redress that balance by examining the compositional function of biblical texts in the Gospel. At this point NV brings us up to date with a survey of the two competing scholarly views, one beginning with C. H. Dodd and the other with Alfred Suhl.”

    Do the terms:
    • expositional
    and
    • compositional

    have any relationship to the view that the final text represents a rather lengthy history of growth verse the view that, in the final text, there are identifiable textual relationships such that any allusion or quotation from another text forms an integral part of the Markan text, even when it seems to be out of context ?

    Per “The production of the Gospel of Mark – An essay on intertextuality” (1993) by Willem S. Vorster, “I will first pay attention to current views on the origin of the material. The idea is to illustrate the implications of the traditional focus on the origins of the Gospel. In the next part of the essay I will turn to the production of the Gospel from the perspective of intertextuality. In this section I will focus on the implications of a totally different perception of the phenomena of text and textual relationships. “

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